5 People On Whether Or Not They’d Pay A Spouse’s Student Loans

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Last night, I watched Ali Wong’s special on Netflix, “Baby Cobra.” Wong is a writer for the ABC show “Fresh Off The Boat;” she’s also a fiercely honest, jubilantly-dirty standup comedian whose views on feminism (specifically, working mothers who advance their careers throughout their childbearing years) differ dramatically from my own. That’s why I’m impressed by Wong’s incisive, unapologetic talent for presenting the argument that women should have “kept their mouths shut” and “played dumb” instead of advocating for equal rights to employment…in a genuinely hilarious way.

Wong pulls all this commentary off — detailing the thrills of anal stimulation, giving a matter-of-fact account of her miscarriage, miming the positions of I’m-ovulating-let’s-conceive sex — while seven months pregnant. “I don’t want to LEAN IN,” she yells at one point; “I want to LIE DOWN.” I laughed out loud. Her repartee to women who are stumping and picketing with the message that women can do everything just as well as men can? “Shut up, bitch! Don’t tell them the secret!” Plenty of feminists would argue that Wong’s stance is regressive; taking into account Wong’s drive (writing for a sitcom on a major network, performing while pregnant), I interpret her comments as ironic, self-aware, and deliberately exaggerated for comedic effect.

So, why am I telling you about this on a personal finance blog? Because Wong’s most striking blows fall during her description of her marital finances. Despite all her hemming and hawing about work, Wong is a comedian who has achieved the glittering, stability-spangled dream of most standups: she landed a TV-writing gig and the six-figure salary that goes with it. She’s held that job throughout the turbulence of fertility treatments, conception, miscarriage, pregnancy, and (now) childbirth.

Wong spends a lot of “Baby Cobra” painting a comically-imbalanced power dynamic in her courtship, engagement, and eventual marriage to her husband. Wong describes him as a sleek, successful, “out of her league” attractive Harvard Business School graduate; she claims that she “trapped his ass” with delayed sex, years of insistence on a proposal, and, once married, a pregnancy.

Many times over, Wong jokes that her interest, investment in, and attachment to her husband is financially-motivated. She packs his lunch every day to “make him dependent” on her; she views those hand-crafted ham sandwiches as “an investment in my financial future.” Wong’s transactional attitude towards marriage is funny, and sometimes bleak; and it may even be how Wong really feels. But after detailing the pragmatic side of her marriage and the unexpected resentments of pregnancy, Wong digs into the details of purchasing a home with her husband. This is where “Baby Cobra” packs a sucker punch:

Two weeks into the escrow process, I discovered that my beautiful, Harvard-educated husband was $70,000 in debt. And me, with my hard-earned TV money, paid it all off. So, as it turns out, he’s the one who trapped me.

Wong decided to pay off her husband’s debt. And the way she tells it, it sounds like her decision was an immediate one; she seems to have paid it off in a lump sum (may we all be so lucky to earn enough from our creative pursuits to knock out five figures of debt in a day). If I were in here position — or even a less lucrative one — I think I’d fall on the same side of the cost-benefit analysis: when you’re hitched, you’re financially entangled, especially when it comes to property purchases and ownership. Your spouse’s debt functions (from a loan and mortgage perspective) as your liability, too.

That’s why I found this Reddit thread a particularly interesting read. CohenX put this query to his fellow personal finance readers:

I have two kids and live in Texas. My wife has a little over $10k in student loans…these loans were incurred before our marraige. She already has poor (at least not good) credit and she doesn’t work, nor do we plan on her working for the foreseeable future. I make enough for our family to live comfortably on my salary. Further, everything we purchase (house, auto, etc.) is in my name, and I have excellent credit and student loans of my own.

What happens if I don’t pay my wife’s loans back? I’d like to focus on repaying my student loans, but hers carry a higher interest rate. Would there be any consequences for my family’s finances or credit (not just my wife) if I were to allow her loans to default?

Community members weighed in on the (admittedly, state-specific) laws that enforce this “what’s yours is mine” ethic of marital finances. Regardless of where you live — in the Lone Star State or elsewhere — these detailed responses serve as an interesting primer for thinking about the legal consequences of marrying into unpaid debt.

1. “Texas is a community property state. A creditor — for debt that [your wife] solely owed before marriage — can sue her and claim half the value of assets that you have acquired during your marriage (i.e., her half of your community property). This means that YOU individually are protected from her previous debts, but your family as a whole is not. If you have put $20,000 in the bank since your marriage, her share of that is $10,000, even if only you earned it. Her creditors can claim that, in the event of a successful verdict against her.”np20412

2. “They can and will: 1) Take any tax refund you might be owed, 2) Sue your wife and receive a judgment against her, 3) Continue to trash her credit.” Lost_in_Face

3. “Debts incurred prior to your marriage are only the responsibility of that individual party. However, you live in a common property state, so any money you lend your wife, or any of your combined income you use, will entitle debt collectors to come after your joint assets in the event that your wife defaults on her loans.” caringexecutive

4. “You are not responsible for the debts that she had before you got married. That being said, student loan debt does not fall off after seven years, so it will always be there on her credit report, and her credit will be in the toilet for the rest of her life. I say just pay it off. You would have to walk a fine line on everything you ever aquire jointly, as they could come after it. You would basically need to live your financial lives completely separately from one another. I mean, if she never works again, and you never put her name on anything, I doubt there’s much a collector can do. But do you want to deal with that stress? It would be better for your marriage if you paid this off and included her in your financial life.” BuckeyeKMH

All the more reason to have that money talk with your significant other as early as possible, and make sure you know exactly what sort of debt you’re marrying into before you say “I do.”

Image via Unsplash

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  • Anon

    I agree with you. I have a friend who has been with her boyfriend for 5 years and they plan on getting married. She has about 35k in debt (mostly student) and not a great credit score, which she has been steadily rehabilitating for the last few years. He makes about 20-30k more than she does and has no student debt. Part of the reason they’ve put off marrying is her student debt. Neither of them wants him to take on some of the responsibility. They’re also trying to figure out how he can buy a house without her on the lease and work it out so she gets some equity. Every week they split groceries and rent down the middle. Only, the thing is, he has way more spending power in their relationship because she has throw everything at her loans, so he spend $10/day on cigarettes while she hasn’t bought any clothing in two years. I definitely understand not paying off the loans of someone you’re not yet married to, and I get want to be fair with household expenses, but past a certain point it seems like a weird dynamic to have with a spouse. How do you sit there and watch your partner scrimp and stress over money while you have plenty to spare on luxuries? At the very least, why don’t you just split the household expenses so your expenses are proportionate to income? It just feels like you’re either planning to be with this person for the rest of your life or not. If her credit history is something you can’t live with, then don’t marry her..

    Ok, don’t mean to rant. I’ve never said this to them, obviously, because it’s not my business

    • Tara

      This is a marriage that will not work out. No question. Keep your finances separate before marriage and do everything you can to get out of debt. After marriage, what’s mine is yours, babe. The idea that you can separate debt and other financial issues and NOT have it cause a major emotional problem is ludicrous. Work together and work it out.

    • Andrea Sease

      i totally agree with you. if he makes 30k more than her, at least pay it off marry her and then have her pay him back. i mean, sure he gets to keep his money, if he doesn’t, but why even get married if you are that exacting?

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Fascinating story, Anon! Thanks for sharing. I’d love to hear more about it! http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

    • Winterlight

      I’m with you. When your incomes are disparate, splitting down the middle means the lower earner ends up in an unbalanced situation. Add in the loans, and it means he can throw money around while she’s counting every penny. Not good.

  • Andrea Sease

    so if you do not pay your spouse’s debt, what will you do when retirement time comes? let them work to death while you sit like Scrouge Mcduck on a pile of gold? How will you buy cars or houses? do you let them just borrow everything, because nothing will be in their name? does your wife become your tenant? what about if you die? do you will everything to someone else, you clearly do not want your spouse to have your bounty

  • egust01

    My husband and I got married this past June. He makes about $90,000 more than I do, has no debt (except for his auto loan) and has excellent credit. I, on the other hand, just paid off $10,000 in credit card debt about 2 years ago, and still have $25,000 in student loan debt. Oh- and we just found out that I am pregnant! Our plan is for me to stay home with our new babe (cue the questions about my financial independence), but he has asked that I pay off as much of my student loan debt as possible in the next 8 months.

    I guess my point is, I have never once thought that my debt was his, even if legally it is, and would never want him to pay it off. I wouldn’t feel right about him paying off debt that he did not incur, especially when I could’ve paid it off when I was younger but instead chose to spend my money on Forever 21 clothing and buckets of Bud Light. (I also realize the privilege I have in being able to put nearly all of my income into paying off my debt, while he takes care of all bills related to the house.)

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Hi egust01 — thank you for sharing your story! If you ever want to write about this experience (or your decisions regarding motherhood, marital finances, etc) I would love to hear from you! 🙂 http://thefinancialdiet.com/submissions/

      • egust01

        Thanks, Rebecca- this is something I’d definitely be interested in!

    • Anon

      I see why you would feel that way, but want to respectfully suggest that he is helping you pay off your debt by freeing you of the financial obligation to support yourself this year. He’s not writing a check for your loans, but he is writing you one for your rent or mortgage. Which is fine! Marriage has historically been about pooling resources for survival. If that way of slicing things up works for you, that’s great. I guess I just don’t see the benefit in looking at it as your debt in that scenario, as opposed to household debt.

      • GBee

        This! I live rent free at my boyfriend’s home while I funnel money into investments for a future home. I absolutely look at all of that money as both of ours. If I paid him $800/month for rent I would not be able to save nearly as much as I now.

      • egust01

        Definitely a great point. I fully agree that’s he’s helping me pay off my debt! Maybe I look at it the way I do because I feel some guilt about not contributing a whole lot to our household finances. Not sure. Guess I’ll need some introspection on that one. (Let me just say, too, that I do pay my personal bills each month- auto loan, insurance, etc).

        • Jackie Onorato

          Is it possible for the both of you to to pay it off in one go now? Or in the near future? How long is it going to take you to pay it off at the rate you’re going? I would do the math and see how much more you’ll be spending on your loan if you continue to just make payments instead of paying it off. It’s not just $25k, it’s that amount plus your accumulating interest. You could save a lot of money. I understand the feeling of not wanting someone else to pay off your loan, but there’s a bigger picture here of your future together as a couple.

  • Emily

    I don’t want to judge this guy too harshly, but I definitely wouldn’t have this attitude toward my future husband’s loans (and if I end up not being the higher earner, I would hope he wouldn’t have this attitude toward mine). They made the decision for her not to work together (so it doesn’t sound like she’s just lazy or reckless), but when it might actually cost him something, she’s on her own and he’s willing to destroy her credit rather than help her out with an easily anticipated problem? Again, I don’t want to judge, but from the small amount of info he’s given us, he sounds seriously controlling.

    • Elbee

      Yes, what the hell!? They both decided that she wouldn’t work and yet he yields all of the financial power and her name isn’t even on any of the property!? I really can’t believe someone would be willing to let their life partner’s credit go down the drain because they don’t view it as their responsibility… and yet, I’m sure his wife does all or most of the childrearing and taking care of the home. This dude is seriously scary and there’s no way that is an equal partnership.

      • Emily

        Exactly! What happens if he lets her loans default and then they divorce? She’s not going to be able to get loans, find a house/apartment, or buy a car without him. I can’t imagine being okay with causing that much financial harm to an ex-spouse, let alone someone I was actually married to. How could he possibly think that he could reap the benefits of her staying home without assuming costs for things that she now won’t be able to pay for? Presumably he doesn’t charge her rent or expect her to pay for utilities, so why is this any different?

        I think I remember Chelsea writing a really good piece on pre-nups a while back–financially unsafe situations like these are why they are SO important.

    • Winterlight

      ITA. He gets the benefits of her staying home, but if something goes wrong, she’s screwed.

  • Christian Gonzales

    was very much hoping it would literally be 5 opinions on paying off their spouses debt, as someone with lots of debt dating someone who has none. Still a very helpful article, particularly living in Texas!

    Also, convinced me to watch the Baby Cobra special.

    • Rebecca Foresman

      Glad to hear it, Christian! It’s worth the watch 😉

    • jdub

      I happened to get lucky enough to watch her do standup when I was in LA at the end of May, the week this special had dropped. She showed up, unannounced, in a matching sweatsuit with a fanny pack on, and fucking CRUSHED. She was hilarious and made me go home and watch the whole special immediately.

      • Christian Gonzales

        I literally watched it as soon as i got home from work yesterday, not gonna lie. She’s my new favorite! haha

  • Hannah

    My husband and I were married this past October and have since decided to share the cost of everything. I have about $17K in student loans, and he has about 4 times that. Even before we were married, I knew that we would both be working, and could both be contributing to those loan payoffs. Honestly, even though they are different loans, I’ve lumped them together in our budget, to make one big payment every month titled “loans.”
    We opened a shared checking account, to pool our money to make it easier to pay household bills and loan payments. We love the idea of sharing all the money that comes in, and it works for us despite the difference in salaries. We’ve decided on a monthly “allowance” if you will, that either one of us can spend without the other saying anything. While we are sharing everything, I think it’s healthy to set boundaries and expectations.

  • Wow, I find this incredible, to me marriage is a partnership not a situation where yours and mine exists financially. I’m with the writer this article starts out with – your spouse’s debt is family debt and thus your debt.

  • Laira

    This headline is misleading.

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